Against Interpretation

Susan Sontag

From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practices.

This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.

Despite being fascinated by Susan Sontag, I haven’t actually read much of her work, so it was inevitable that at some point I would end up with three of her books in my pile at once. I stuck with this collection of essays first, largely based on their overall iconicity. There were a few parts in the theater section that I lightly skimmed, but in her Thirty Years Later… reminiscence even Sontag distanced herself from some of these, having taken the commission “against [her] better judgment.”

The titular essay, “On Style,” and “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” are the best known pieces found here, yet in many ways I appreciate Sontag’s criticism more where she’s specific to a work or creator. Sontag had such a vast reach of knowledge that her ability to take one writer or filmmaker and put them in a rich context is what makes her such a pleasure to read. Essays like “Nathalie Sarraute and the novel” and “Psychoanalysis and Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death” are jumping off points for further consideration despite their specificity, without any previous experience of the work she’s discussing — or even most of those contextual references. Despite Sontag’s sometimes formidable viewpoints, her essays feel like invitations to dialogue. And certainly people do, even still — last year Richard Brody revisited his “virtual quarrel” with her on the occasion of the publication of the second volume of her journals.